x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

War-weary Lebanese now fear earthquake

People sleep in tents amid abnormal seismic activity in a country that has many fault lines and history of devastation.

Beirut // Nervous residents in some southern Lebanese villages have taken to sleeping in tents at night due to recent warnings that the area soon could be struck by a major earthquake. The village of Srifa, which was heavily damaged during the 2006 Hizbollah-Israel war, has been hit several times since February by earth tremors. The earthquakes, which have registered magnitudes as high as five on the Richter scale, have caused cracks in walls of buildings, some of which still carry the scars of the 2006 war. Local residents say that some 300 people from the 6,000-strong village are sleeping under canvas.

"Five members of my family were killed during the 2006 war when Israel shelled my house. I do not want to lose the rest of my family because of an earthquake," said Khodr Jaber, a farmer from Srifa. The scare began on Monday when Israel's health ministry urged health authorities in northern Israel to make preparations for an earthquake. "The probability of an earthquake of a magnitude of up to six on the Richter scale, originating in Lebanon and being felt in Israel has increased," the health ministry said in a letter sent to medical officials in northern Israel.

Abnormal seismic activity has been detected in south Lebanon which has experienced some 500 tremors since February, wrote Avi Yisraeli, the Israeli health ministry's director-general. "In May, the tremors have become more intense and were felt in northern Israel," he said, adding that "should an earthquake of such magnitude hit northern Israel, it may cause substantial infrastructural damage in the area.

But Lebanon's National Scientific Research Council said that it "is not expecting any destructive earthquake", adding that it was "impossible to accurately predict an earthquake to a specific date". "There is no reason for any extra precautions beyond those one should normally take," the statement said. Lebanon has a long history of major earthquakes which have destroyed Beirut at least twice and helped shape Lebanon's current coastline.

Lebanon lies at the nexus of three continental plates: the African, the Arabian and the Eurasian. The African plate is heading south-west and the Arabian plate north-east at approximately two centimetres per year. The Dead Sea rift between the African and Arabian plates runs up the Red Sea, through the Gulf of Aqaba, along the Jordan valley and into Lebanon where it becomes known as the Yammouneh following the western side of the Bekaa.

However, Lebanon's dilemma does not centre solely on this one major fault line but on the dozens of others running throughout the country. Beirut, for example, has at least five recognised faults - one that follows the Beirut river; another called the Town Centre fault that begins at the land fill site known as Normandy and heads through the city centre toward Rafik Hariri International Airport; another in Ras Beirut, and two that follow the Beirut coastline and bisect just off Ras Beirut. Geologists believe that it is these last two faults that created the Beirut peninsula by forcing the sea bed above the surface of the sea.

Although accurately predicting earthquakes is currently impossible, many seismologists believe they are cyclical, occurring at regular intervals throughout history. Given this information, as well as a detailed knowledge of the faults themselves, some believe earthquakes can be loosely predicted over the long term. Lebanon is fortunate in this regard, as earthquakes have been documented over the last 2,500 years. By contrast, the notorious San Andreas Fault in California has records extending back only 250 years.

Anyone in any doubt as to the impact earthquakes can have on Lebanon needs only to consult these records: In 525BC, Tyre was destroyed; in 349AD most of Beirut was destroyed; on July 6 551AD, Beirut was destroyed, Tyre and Tripoli experienced heavy damage, the coastline was partly altered and Ras Chekka in north Lebanon fell into the sea; in 1170, Tripoli was destroyed; on Oct 30 1759, 2,000 people were killed in Quneitra in modern-day Syria and Safad in what is now Israel; less than a month later on Nov 25, more than 40,000 people perished in an earthquake that struck Beirut and Damascus.

Although earthquakes cannot be avoided, their impact can be mitigated through prior planning, specifically the enforcement of strict seismic building codes for new construction. However, the vast majority of Lebanon's buildings constructed over the past 40 years lack any seismic qualifications. @Email:nblanford@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse